Embed from Getty Images
One of the keys to Benjamin Netanyahu’s political success has been his ability to maintain a working relationship with left-leaning parties. Despite some mutual animosity, in the past 10 years Netanyahu was able to form governments with the likes of Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid. This boosted his bargaining power versus right-wing partners and enabled him to build broader coalitions.
However, Netanyahu’s increasingly acrimonious attacks on the Left, which have coincided with his growing legal troubles, have made such partnerships less feasible. As the prime minister discovered after the April 2019 elections, forming a coalition that automatically excludes the Left is no easy task.
In 2015, Netanyahu did manage to forge a coalition comprising exclusively rightist and religious parties, but only after flirting at length with the center-left Zionist Union. Since then, a sense of hubris coupled with mounting legal woes prompted him to escalate his attacks on the Left. Netanyahu was now regularly demonizing leftists and lashing out at anyone perceived to hold left-wing tendencies, be it the media, political rivals or the legal establishment.
After his strong showing in the April 2019 elections, Netanyahu for the first time in a decade did not bother to engage in coalition talks with any center-left parties. Potential partners on the Right quickly recognized that he lacked other viable options, thus boosting their demands and complicating coalition-building efforts.
After facing unexpected difficulties, particularly in bringing former ally Avigdor Lieberman on board, Netanyahu desperately wooed the Left in a last-ditch bid to put together a government. He then discovered what should have been patently obvious earlier: He was no longer welcome.
Labor party leaders apparently considered some stunningly generous offers from Netanyahu, but any prospects for a coalition deal were quashed by the fierce objections of key Labor figures. The corruption charges surely contributed to this, but Netanyahu’s vitriolic assaults on the Left have made the animosity toward him more emotional and widespread than ever before.
The near-veto in leftist circles on joining forces with Netanyahu now immensely complicates his ability to form a stable coalition.
The prime minister may recognize this, and in recent months has made some efforts to strike a posture that is more palatable for leftists. Hence, he publicly rebuked right-wing partners for suggesting that Israel should embrace religious law, and apparently nudged a confidant to adopt a more reconciliatory attitude to Israeli Arabs in an op-ed in the left-wing Haaretz daily. According to the latest reports, Netanyahu is again open to a coalition with center-left partners.
Netanyahu is now caught between a rock and a hard place, as rallying his right-wing supporters via lefty-bashing has proven to be a key ingredient in his electoral triumphs. Softening the blows may weaken his appeal among core constituencies, but persistent anti-leftist tirades would limit his coalition options after the September elections. One way or another, it may be too late for repentance at this stage.
Meanwhile, leftist and centrist politicians are also facing a dilemma. Teaming up with Netanyahu despite the ill feelings could offer some handsome rewards, but resisting the temptation could bring about the ultimate prize in precipitating his political demise. For now, all the parties to the left of Netanyahu’s Likud are vowing to shun his overtures.
Netanyahu has already proven that he is Israel’s most skillful political operator, but the task at hand may be the most challenging in his long career. Will he rise to the challenge? One thing at least seems certain: Another failure to cobble together a coalition may very well mark the end of his political journey.